Review: Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax

There are some games released in Japan that we here in the West just assume we’ll never get. These are the types of titles that we don’t even get our hopes up for and just import them due to the understanding that they’ll never see the light of day in English anyway. That’s Sega’s latest game from developer French Bread: a 2D fighter that pits anime characters from various shows and games against one another. Aside from the licensing nightmare that we assumed would hold the game back from getting a North American release, a niche fighter like this, only releasing on the Vita and PlayStation 3, just didn’t seem feasible for launching here of all places. And yet, here we are…reviewing a fully localized version of Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax. What a weird, wonderful world we live in.

Fighting Climax is, like its name implies, a traditional 2D fighter — at least in terms of presentation. Firing it up, it has the looks of a typical fighting game: 2D sprites, Japanese characters, a few modes, a slick interface; all the check-boxes that should be checked are indeed, well, checked. Once folks get past the common window-dressing, though, they will see that Dengeki Bunko is quite the different type of fighter. Mechanically speaking, Sega and French Bread’s fighter is probably one of the most, if not the single most, accessible game of its kind on current consoles.

What makes Fighting Climax the ideal entry-point for newcomers to the genre? Well, for starters, all characters adhere to the same button inputs to perform their moves. That’s right, a quarter roll will net players a special move regardless of their characters, just as pressing square and triangle together, or performing a z-motion on the analog stick (à la Ryu’s Dragon Punch) will too. This will sound strange and possibly off-putting to the fighting game purists of the world, and perhaps rightfully so. How could there be that much skill involved in a game if all one has to do is learn one set of button configurations and then use them across all characters? That’s a valid question, but one that’s a bit misdirected. We say that because Fighting Climax isn’t trying to be the next big tournament fighter. Instead, it’s meant to be played by not only fighting game enthusiasts, but also anime lovers who will know who its cast of fourteen main characters, and over twentty support characters, actually is.

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That’s right, this game is aimed at the largest common denominator in this niche market. Much like Persona 4 Arena was, Climax hopes to lure in newbies and casuals alike to train them on the genre. Now, that’s not to say that there’s not something here for even the most ardent fans of fighters. We consider ourselves big fans of anything resembling a fighting game, and we still really enjoyed what the game had to offer. (Though that may have been because we knew the intellectual properties on display.) Because, while the movesets are a breeze to learn, all of the other high-level meta mechanics are present and accounted for.

Dengeki is big on combos, for instance. While each combatant’s signature moves are easy enough to pull off, dishing them out is only part of a player’s strategy — or at least should only be part of their strategy. The game doesn’t venture off into the realm of BlazBlue, and more importantly Marvel Vs. Capcom, when it comes to combo-play, but stringing together a dozen or even two dozen hits isn’t out of the norm. This type of thing is encouraged rather, but is also not going to scare off lesser skilled players, because of how easy it can be to pull off a sizable hit succession. Of course, combos aren’t the only mechanics at play; cancels, guard breaks and the like are here in spades and play exactly as expected.

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Still, part of being able to pull of these high-tier attacks is thanks to an adequate training section that helps guide players along by exposing the systems to them in a digestible way. Mind you, this is no Killer Instinct tutorial that practically is one’s own coach on how to play fighting games from the ground up, but it gets the job done nevertheless. It sets a good foundation for the other modes available, which is what a sound tutorial should do anyway. Speaking of modes, Fighting Climax has more than the average fighter. There’s actually two different story modes present — Arcade Mode and Dream Duel. Arcade Mode is the primary story adventure, which tells the tale of why all of these personalities from various worlds are in a single place fighting one another. Sega has done a bang-up job at localizing the game, making for an interesting story. For a fighter, usually the story aspect of things is a complete throwaway, but that’s not the case here. There’s a surprising amount of character depth too, as there are talking segments between most matches that are genuinely interesting for those who know the characters.

Dream Duel Mode will be a treat for anyone looking to see how these characters would interact with one another if they happened to show up in each other’s show, manga or world. Whereas the Arcade Mode doesn’t show a whole lot of dialogue between the actual characters from which folks can choose to play, Dream Duel gives us the opportunity to see how Kirito from Sword Art Online would talk with Kirino from Oreimo; or how a conversation would go between Rentaro from Black Bullet and Yukina from Strike the Blood. It’s a really neat addition to the game and coincidentally enough, the mode we spent the most time with. There was just something really fun about seeing these iconic characters from some of our favorite shows squaring off against one another. Actually, this is the type of fan-service folks can expect from Fighting Climax in general. This game is clearly a love-letter not just to anime fans, but also Sega fans. Akira from Virtua Fighter makes an appearance, as does Selvaria from Valkyria Chronicles (both of which are playable), but then the stage backgrounds practically all originate from past Sega franchises. There are stages based on Phantasy Star Online, Valkyria Chronicles, NiGHT, and of course Sonic. It’s just a lot of fun to have these modern anime faces going toe-to-toe against old-school Sega backdrops.

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Besides these modes, there’s also Versus Mode, which just allows for one-off exhibition matches between characters of the player’s choosing, and also Network Mode. Playing online is broken down into ranked matches and unranked, player matches. In our time with the game, we noticed no significant lag, only seeing the occasional spike once every dozen or so matches. It’s nice to see Sega and French Bread get the netcode right too, as without a smooth online-multiplayer experience in a fighting game the overall experience is severely hampered. If fighting folks from around the globe isn’t your thing, though, then you can jump into ad hoc and play someone sitting across the room for you.

There’s also a challenge mode, which has folks trying to win a set number of matches in as quick a time as possible. There’s even a spot to check out character art, music, replays, and even art from the manga from which the characters became popular. Sega didn’t need to include these extras, but they did–and it’s just another indication of how seriously they took localizing this gem. Sure, they could’ve slapped things together quickly and cashed in on the idea of an anime crossover fighting game, but instead they lovingly crafted the experience.

Lastly, there are the customization options. Whenever a player competes in the game’s various modes, they earn credits. These credits can then be used to unlock new color schemes for characters’ costumes, in addition to icons, titles and plates that will be seen in multiplayer, and even unlock autographs from the team behind the game and various anime represented. The game is just a treasure trove waiting to be opened for fans.

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Though this all does present a bit of a problem: those who aren’t into Sega franchises, or the anime behind the game’s roster of fighters, probably won’t get much out of the experience. Furthermore, if someone isn’t a fan and is also a hardcore fighting game fan who wants to take his skills to the next level, Fighting Climax will hardly have anything to offer that particular demographic. Dengeki Bunko seems aimed at a narrow audience- — a subset of a subset — making this a niche title within a somewhat niche genre.

The presentation has been given love and attention. Menus are slick and the graphics are extremely vibrant. The 2D sprites move with impressive fluidity, their animations something that is only rivaled by something like the aforementioned BlazBlue. Super moves and long combo attacks are especially beautiful. Moreover, the game rocks one of the best fighting game soundtracks around. It’s a combination of original tunes and themes from the various anime, manga, and video games the characters are from and finds an excellent balance between rock anthems and more bubbly Japanese pop. The game has a superb sense of style and one that we wish was used more often. Best still, despite all of the motion on-screen, it never chugs or drops frames.

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Closing Comments
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Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax is a wonderful fighting game that isn’t particularly meant to be played by fighting game diehards. That doesn’t make it bad, but rather a love-letter to anime and Sega fans, and an all-around excellent game to boot; one that’s filled to the brim with content, unlockables and a colorful cast of characters. Its roster of fighters isn’t super deep and a lot of the franchises represented won’t be immediately known to even the casual anime viewer, but knowing who these fighters are isn’t a requisite to have fun, which is Fighting Climax‘s aim: fun. Its combat isn’t all that nuanced, sure, but it is fast, fluid, flashy, and super accessible. This is the type of game you fire up when friends come over, because of how accommodating a fighting game it is. All of the characters using the same button inputs for moves will undoubtedly make some look down their nose at the game. We pity those people, however, because beneath its simple design is a really fun fighter — a fighter not built for the usual crowd.